Out of this World Research: from Great Salt Lake to Mars

Student and Professor at Great Salt Lake Research Mars Rover

November 19, 2018

When the next Mars Rover lands on the red planet in 2020, it will search for signs of ancient life using research from Westminster’s Great Salt Lake Institute. The glistening crust of Great Salt Lake’s lake bed resembles those on Mars so closely that scientists are using it to address the question: is there life on Mars?

Bonnie Baxter, biology professor and director of Westminster’s Great Salt Lake Institute, is collaborating with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab to study what salt can preserve over time. The shores of Great Salt Lake are other worldly: seemingly barren yet teeming with life. Baxter’s research shows salt crystals at the lake trap tiny forms of life – biological footprints.

“Along the shores we pick up salt crystals, and what we’ve found in our lab is that microorganisms can get trapped inside these crystals,” Baxter said. “People that study salt biology have been reporting this for a number of years now. Even going back millions of years you can find microorganisms or their molecules preserved.”

If salt on Earth can trap biological molecules over time, could salt on Mars hold evidence that life was once in the planet’s salty lakes? The next Mars Exploration Rover Mission in 2020 will examine minerals on Mars, looking for the molecules of life stored inside. NASA needed an analogous system on Earth to test their methods.

“Folks from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) travel to explore the salt at Great Salt Lake with us and think about how it might compare to Mars salt deposits,” Baxter said. “My students and I have been growing microbes from our lake salt crystals. We may not find living cells on a dead planet like Mars, so JPL scientists are studying the ability of salt to retain molecules like DNA or lipids inside the salt crystals to see if we can image that from the outside.”

Rovers on Mars have already found minerals, including salt, in ancient dried up lake beds. Mars lost its surface water and atmosphere more than 3 billion years ago — just as life was emerging on its neighbor, Earth.

“It is possible that microorganisms could have traveled between the two planets because we know space debris traveled between the planets. Both planets had atmosphere and standing water at that time. Life evolves on Earth; we know that story. It is absolutely a great scientific question to ask if life also emerged on Mars,” Baxter said.

Dr. Baxter’s students are involved in the research too, studying the types of microorganisms that grow out of salt crystals and evaluating the properties that would make them good models for life on Mars. If a microbe can live in the high salt and high UV radiation at Great Salt Lake, could something similar have once lived on Mars?

“If they find life on Mars then I would feel like I was part of something huge because it’s like alien life. That’s insane. I didn’t think I’d be a part of that as an undergraduate,” said Westminster biology student Adrik Da Silva.

Baxter takes the salt crystals collected by students from Great Salt Lake to her collaborators at NASA. Scientists then examine the crystals using a special instrument that will be on the Mars 2020 rover.

“They’ll be using that instrument to look for organics in our salt crystals to mimic how the rover will look at the minerals on Mars,” Baxter said.

When the next rover lands on Mars in 2020, Westminster students and Dr. Baxter will be following closely – looking for any traces of life.

Hand holding a crystal at Great Salt Lake

Two students walking on Great Salt Lake

Student holding salt crystal

Researchers in the distance at the Spiral Jetty